Writing Culture



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Contributed date

August 2, 2018 - 1:50am

Critical Commentary

Book Abstract: Why have ethnographic accounts recently lost so much of their authority? Why were they ever believable? Who has the right to challenge an "objective" cultural description? Was Margaret Mead simply wrong about Samoa as has recently been claimed? Or was her image of an exotic land a partial truth reflecting the concerns of her time and a complex encounter with Samoans? Are not all ethnographies rhetorical performances deter­ mined by the need to tell an effective story? Can the claims of ideology and desire ever be fully reconciled with the needs of theory and observation? These are some of the questions raised by Writing Culture, new essays by a group of experi­enced ethnographers, a literary critic, and a historian of anthropology. All the authors are known for advanced analytic work on ethno­graphic writing. Their preoccupation is both theoretical and practical: they see the writing of cultural accounts as a crucial form of knowl­edge—the troubled, experimental knowledge of a self in jeopardy among others. These essays place ethnography at the center of a new intersection of social history, interpretive anthropology, travel writing, discourse theory, and textual criticism. They analyze classic examples of cultural description, from Goethe and Catlin to Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Le Roy Ladurie, showing the persistence of allegorical patterns and rhetorical tropes. They assess recent experimental trends and explore the functions of orality, ethnicity, and power in ethnographic composition. Writing Culture argues that ethnography is in the midst of a political and epistemological crisis: Western writers no longer portray non-Western peoples with unchallenged authority; the process of cultural representation is now inescapably con­tingent, historical, and contestable. The essays in this volume help us imagine a fully dialectical ethnography acting powerfully in the postmodern world system. They challenge all writers in the humanities and social sciences to rethink poetics and politics of cultural invention.


Clifford, James, George E. Marcus, and School of American Research (Santa Fe, N.M.), eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography: A School of American Research Advanced Seminar. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Group Audience

Cite as

James Clifford and George Marcus, "Writing Culture", contributed by James Adams, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 3 August 2018, accessed 12 August 2022. http://www.stsinfrastructures.org/content/writing-culture